Where the buffalo no longer roam
At the break of dawn, Amir Hossain gets out of bed and steps into his Bathan, a shed where animals are housed and maintained. He starts his day by milking buffaloes, a routine he has maintained for almost a decade now.
However, his life changed three years ago when he was forced out of his island home of Urir Char along with his 43 buffaloes, leaving behind his family and friends. Now he is a climate refugee living in Chattogram's Sandwip upazila.
At least 200 coastal herders on the island shared the same fate, fleeing from their homes in the face of relentless tides.
With grazing land or pastures vanishing due to erosion and the buffalo population dwindling, these coastal herders had no choice but to migrate to a greener place.
Erosion, influenced by rising sea levels due to the impacts of the climate crisis, claimed 13 square kilometres of the island in the last decade alone, according to the Water Development Board (WDB).
Since its formation, the island has eroded by two-thirds. Many climate stressors are active here, including coastal erosion, cyclones, drought, and heavy rainfall, according to a study titled "Washed away: the impact of climate change-induced coastal erosion in Urir Char".
"Erosion engulfed many pastures in Urir Char, so we couldn't afford to stay there any longer. Our buffaloes need food, and there wasn't any of that left," said Amir.
In Amanullah area of Sandwip, which is 25km from the island, this correspondent met one Mohammad Sayeed.
His move from Urir Char had claimed a heavy price -- six of his buffalo calves were lost to the harsh winter of their new home.
The remaining 37 buffaloes appeared malnourished and weak.
"They are struggling to adapt to the new environment," said Sayeed.
When asked why he had to leave, he replied, "We had no choice," blaming the lack of grazing land on Urir Char.
Due to the migration, the buffalo population in Urir Char dropped to 5,742 from around 35,000 in the last 10 years, according to the livestock department.
Urir Char is an island in the Bay of Bengal located near the Sandwip channel in Chattogram. It emerged in 1971, and over 12,000 people are currently living on the island.
Satellite images obtained by The Daily Star show a significant section of the island's western part has submerged in the sea over the past two decades.
Mohammad Abdur Rahman, director of the Center for People and Environment, said, "Climate change has jeopardised the primary economic support for coastal residents, which is livestock, leading to a financial crisis for those along the coastline."
Ali Azam, the upazila livestock officer of Sandwip, said, "The main factor contributing to the decline in buffalo population on this island is erosion."
WHY DO COASTAL PEOPLE NEED LIVESTOCK?
Buffalo, being more resistant to salinity than other livestock, enables coastal residents to earn a living by raising them along the coast. The sustainability of buffalo rearing is crucial for the livelihoods of these coastal communities, as they stand to lose their means of income if this practice becomes unsustainable.
The encroachment on grazing land by the advancing sea poses a threat to the livelihoods of herding communities, which can also impact the region's protein supply. During a recent visit to the island, this correspondent spoke with at least 10 herders, including Mohammed Rahim, who expressed concerns about the need to relocate their livestock due to a shortage of pastures.
Mohammed Mostafa, a herder with 52 buffaloes, had moved from Urirchar to Amanullah on Sandwip in 2017.
"Livestock rearing is my family business. But we are now struggling to survive," he said.
The island's economy is suffering due to the decline in the buffalo population. Some herders have been compelled to switch professions, such as Shamsul Hoque, who lost his job as buffaloes of the farm where he used to work had to relocate to Sandwip.
The status quo has also hit the local yoghurt market. Mohammed Harun, a 45-year-old resident of Urir Char, said, "I used to produce yoghurt from buffalo milk, but the milk shortage forced me to abandon this profession, and I am now working as a day labourer,"
GOVT INTERVENTION A MUST
Both researchers and officials from the livestock department are recommending the construction of a sustainable dyke to safeguard the island.
Upazila livestock officer Azam said, "We urged WDB officials to build a dyke around the island to protect the livestock pastures."
Climate expert Mohammad Abdur Rahman warned, "If the island is not shielded from erosion, the grazing land crisis is likely to exacerbate in the future."
WDB engineer Anis Haider Khan confirmed that they have submitted a project proposal costing Tk 794 crore to construct an embankment
"We conducted a survey and identified that the 9.6 km-square area of Urir Char is susceptible to washing out during extreme weather events due to the lack of a dyke. We plan to construct a dyke surrounding the island pending approval from the ministry."